Chicago Yacht Club launches probe into auto-inflating vests after sailor’s death

The Chicago Yacht Club has launched an investigation into auto-inflating flotation devices after the death of sailor Jon Santarelli, who drowned in Lake Michigan during a sailing competition in July.

Santarelli, 53, was competing in the club’s annual Race to Mackinac event on July 21 when he went overboard off a boat called “Imedi,” U.S. Coast Guard officials said at the time.

Santarelli was trimming a sail behind the helm when the motion of the boat in short-period waves averaging 6 to 8 feet in height caused him to lose his footing, according to a statement from the yacht club. He slid under protective lifelines and off the back of the yacht.

Santarelli was wearing a life vest designed to inflate when it went underwater, but it malfunctioned when he went under, according to the yacht club.

The rest of the crew turned the Imedi around and went back to the spot where Santarelli had fallen, club officials said. The crew noticed Santarelli’s vest didn’t inflate, so crew members tossed him other flotation devices, which he couldn’t reach. Within six minutes they saw Santarelli slip underwater without resurfacing again.

Santarelli’s body was spotted on July 28 nearly six miles offshore from Belmont Harbor, according to Chicago police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office. An autopsy the next day found that Santarelli had drowned and his death was ruled an accident.

The yacht club asked Coast Guard investigators to examine Santarelli’s vest as part of a probe into his drowning, but officials told the club Aug. 1 that they “could not perform a full analysis of the vest because it had been incinerated without the Coast Guard’s prior knowledge.”

Coast Guard Cmdr. Leanne Lusk said the vest was incinerated at a funeral home as part of the transfer process of Santarelli’s body and effects from the medical examiner’s office. She said the vest wasn’t saved because his death was ruled accidental and there was no active law enforcement investigation into the case. The Coast Guard did not learn about its destruction until after it was already incinerated.

Lusk said Santarelli’s family was able to save the vest’s CO2 cartridge, which also went through the incinerator. Coast Guard investigators were able to examine the cartridge and determine that it wasn’t punctured inward by its firing pin the way it would be during a normal inflation, which indicate that the mechanism didn’t function properly when submerged.

Officials have not been able to determine the make and model of Santarelli’s vest or why it failed to inflate, but the yacht club has formed a Safety Enhancement Committee to investigate the reliability of auto-inflating personal flotation devices and their use in future racing events.

The probe aims to determine the reliability of auto-inflation technology, the extent to which such devices are properly maintained and the effectiveness of secondary and tertiary manual inflation techniques, the club said.

The club is expected to release a “comprehensive report” on its findings in January.

Source: Chicago sun